Not What Anybody Says

Michael Wood

  • Yellow Tulips: Poems 1968-2011 by James Fenton
    Faber, 164 pp, £14.99, May 2012, ISBN 978 0 571 27382 9

One of the great attractions of James Fenton’s verse is the way it manages so often to be both plain and cryptic at once. It urges us to think about what we can’t quite know, and it favours certain strategies for doing this. ‘It is not the houses,’ Fenton writes in ‘A German Requiem’. ‘It is the spaces between the houses.’ He repeats this logical rhythm several times within the poem sequence and closes the work with it:

It is not what they say.
It is what they do not say.

Here are complete, consecutive sentences, but no propositional link between them, no all too helpful ‘but’ or ‘and’ or ‘although’. The second obviously corrects the first but abruptly, and the first lingers there on the page, ready to be completed again, or completed differently.

The style is very clear in this recent poem, the last piece in Yellow Tulips:

The sweet rain falls on the sea
Far from the land.
They stretch a torn sail taut between torn hands
To fill the pail.
They turn their channelled faces to the sky
And the sweet rain runs in their eyes
And on the channelled sea.

The torn sail, the torn hands suggest the story of a wreck, and the rain falling ‘far from the land’ is obviously falling in the right place. But who are ‘they’? How many are they? What exactly has happened? Why has no help come? Which sea is this? I ask these questions not because they need answers from the poet but because we can scarcely bring the poem to life without thinking about them. And then what does ‘channelled’ mean? Does it have the same sense the second time as the first? Does it mean something like ‘furrowed’? Are we to think of the English Channel? Either way it doesn’t sound good for the stranded mariners, and the assimilation of their faces to the sea complicates whatever consolation hangs about the story. Is the rain in their eyes going to save these people, or is it a last flash of what might have been hope? The poem hangs in the mind like a small painting and an intricate riddle. It is not what it says.

We could also think of the following poem, another recent one. This is ‘At the Kerb’, written in memory of Mick Imlah, who died in 2009 at the age of 52 – he had been diagnosed with motor neurone disease a year earlier. The manner of the poem is statelier than that of the previous example, striking a mildly archaic note borrowed from ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ (‘Who are these coming to the sacrifice?’), but the same fine mixture of plainness and mystery emerges:

Grief to bestow, where once they bestowed their beauty,
Who are these mourners processing to the grave,
Each bearing a history like a precious ointment
And tender on their sleeves the wounds of love?

Brutal disease has numbered him a victim,
As if some unmarked car had appeared one day
And snatched him off to torture and confinement,
Then dumped him by the kerbside and sped away;

As if they stooped now at the kerb to lift the body,
As if they broke the jars and the unguent flowed,
Flowed down the sleeves and wounds, ran down the kerbstones,
Grief to bestow what beauty once bestowed.

The central narrative image is vivid and uncomplicated. Death behaves like a gangster settling a score or punishing a defection. The concentration of grief is also unmistakable. But what does it mean to bestow grief as one once bestowed beauty? Why are the mourners bearing their histories ‘like a precious ointment’? We understand that grief has somehow broken into this sealed past, made it public and flowing, but then what have these wounds to do with the image of the mobster murder? Would history not have appeared if the victim’s mode of death had been different? Is this a world where so-called ‘natural’ death or even the idea of old age seems remote or implausible? Grief itself becomes a lyrical question. It is not what anybody says.

The principle has long been understood by poets and musicians. Silence can speak as long as you keep breaking into it in the right ways. In ‘A German Requiem’, indeed, silence piles up its meanings almost too quickly for us to register them. A long quotation from Hobbes about our ‘decaying sense’ of the past, which means that in certain crucial areas ‘Imagination and Memory are but one thing,’ is followed in the first poem of the sequence by lines whose shape we will recognise:

It is not what you have written down.
It is what you have forgotten, what you must forget.
What you must go on forgetting all your life.
With any luck oblivion should discover a ritual.

To go on forgetting is a way of remembering – even perhaps the usual way – and ‘with any luck’ seems to express a particularly helpless, scarcely credible wish. Yet within two pages (that is, only two poems away) some of the persons in this sequence have had all the luck they need, and more:

How comforting it is, once or twice a year,
To get together and forget the old times.

Of course these are not the same persons, but they do inhabit the same world, and their plights are not unrelated. We might say, in this case and many others, that ease of forgetting (combined with regular memorial occasions) depends on and always exploits other people’s desperate remembering. The volume in which the poem sequence appeared is called The Memory of War (1982).

‘Children in Exile’, the title poem of Fenton’s next volume (1984), is an evocation of a group of Cambodian children transported to Italy, and arrives, after many memorable images of these thoughtful orphans, at an understanding of what Fenton calls their ‘negative ambition’: they prefer being lost abroad to being found at home. Fenton cites a phrase from Auden as the source of his insight: ‘An emigrant never knows what he wants,/Only what he does not want.’ The children too ‘know what they do not want’:

Better the owl before dawn than the devil by day.
Better strange food than famine, hard speech than mad labour.
Better this quietness than that dismay.

The unworthy suspicion arises (well, arose in me) that ‘dismay’ is there just for the rhyme. Isn’t the word too mild, doesn’t it fall horribly short of the horrors in question? Has it been weakened by too much polite use? The answer is no doubt yes, but of course that is the point. It’s this slightly faded feeling Fenton wants to put into play, since he keeps using the word, and in even more salient locations.

‘Take this dismay,’ we read in a poem called ‘The Mistake’. ‘Lay claim to this mistake.’ In a ballad called ‘Out of the East’ we learn that the sun in those parts shone ‘as the blood rose on the day’:

And it shone on the work of the warrior wind
And it shone on the heart
And it shone on the soul
And they called the sun – Dismay.

The poem ends with the same information, now doubly delivered:

And they called the sun Dismay, my friend,
They called the sun – Dismay.

Another poem has ‘dismay’ in its title and in its brief content:

Beauty, danger and dismay
Met me on the public way.
Whichever I chose, I chose dismay.

Dismay can be chosen or not, we can ‘take’ it or suffer it. It is a word which, in Fenton’s hands, comes back to a more vigorous life, and works much as the style I have been describing does. It says enough to evoke the affect in question but also enacts a verbal shortfall. It’s striking that the OED seems to lose confidence in the word’s force as the definitions unfold. ‘Utter loss of moral courage’ gives way to ‘faintness of heart’, and a ‘feeling of inability to cope’. This is distressing but it’s a long way from despair – which I take it is what a certain discretion in Fenton’s claims is seeking to clarify for us. ‘Dismay’ includes, I think, the sense of being surprised when we should perhaps no longer be surprised.

I’m sure there are poets who like to abandon their own early works, although I’m hard pressed for the moment to think of one. There is Auden, but he was more inclined to hide old poems than to abandon them. Fenton certainly is an accumulator. Children in Exile picked up many poems from The Memory of War, which in turn had gathered several pieces from Terminal Moraine (1972). Four out of six of his books of poems remind us of their start date: 1968. Selected Poems (2006) included his libretto The Love Bomb, but otherwise much resembles the book under review, especially in its middle section. Yellow Tulips does print several very good early works that Selected Poems left out, but there are by my count only six new poems here – 13 if we take the seven ‘Spanish songs’ as individual works. This is a description not a complaint. In fact, the range of tones and modes of the poems is all the more impressive given the relatively brief total offering.

Here are historical meditations, ballads, love songs, elegies, comic allegories, epigrams, and what we could call bleak and brilliant folk verse, as in the poem called ‘Cambodia’:

One man shall smile one day and say goodbye.
Two shall be left, two shall be left to die.

One man shall give his best advice.
Three men shall pay the price.

One man shall live, live to regret.
Four men shall meet the debt.

One man shall wake from terror to his bed.
Five men shall be dead.

One man to five. A million men to one.
And still they die. And still the war goes on.

It’s a long tonal stretch from a story of Pol Pot’s brother (in ‘Dead Soldiers’) to the language of a God who says ‘I’m sorry, I must have been pissed’ or the tale of the likely lad who left his life in a skip, and was amazed to find someone had taken it. There are all kinds of technical games going on in the poems too, off-rhymes, funny rhymes, loaded line-breaks, and some fabulous use of the bouncy rhythms most serious poets are afraid of, especially anapaests:

I’ll be back like a heart attack …

There’s a Christ for a whore and a Christ for a punk … .

It’s the hope that you hope at your peril.
It’s the hope that you fear to attain.

This is the sort of beat that goes with popular jingles and narratives and slightly too confident philosophical assertions, and for Fenton it’s a way of making poetry chime with the old tunes in our heads, and also pretend to run a little too fast for itself – as so much contemporary poetry, without pretending, fastidiously runs slow. If we hear Kipling somewhere in the background, we are probably right.

There are low-energy moments, especially in the poems from Out of Danger (1993). ‘Nothing I do will make you love me more.’ This proposition is going to be true whoever says it, in or out of a poem, and it’s never going to sound anything other than sorry for itself. There are some clunking lines here and there too:

Stay near to me and I’ll stay near to you –
As near as you are dear to me will do.

But there is nothing underpowered or clunking in the poem about madness as a diagnosis and an excuse –

This madness of yours disgusted me,
This alibi,
This gorgeous madness like a tinkling sleigh.

– or about the idea that damage can be fun:

Let’s go over what went wrong –
How and why and when.
Let’s go over what went wrong
Again and again.

We hurt each other badly once.
We said a lot of nasty stuff.
But lately I’ve been thinking how
I didn’t hurt you enough.

There’s more Auden than Kipling in much of Fenton’s writing, but the energy is all his own, and so is his sense that the harms of history and private life belong together, and can be approached through the seriousness of light verse as well as through more obvious forms of sobriety. He seems to worry at times about the range of his own work. One two-line piece called ‘An Amazing Dialogue’ runs:

‘But this poem is not like that poem!’
‘No, you are right, it’s not.’

‘Amazing’ presumably represents an ironic attack on all those who think poems should be like each other, or at least that the works of any given poet should conform to some sort of singleness of style, and there’s a touch of shock or disgust in the exclamation mark. But then the answer is not quite what we might expect. The logic is clear enough: ‘No, it’s not, you’re right.’ This is not quite what the line says, and we may feel invited to wonder about the slippage. Perhaps the speaker isn’t entirely sure that this poem is sufficiently unlike that poem after all, or that a mere lack of resemblance is enough of a merit. On the previous page there is a prose epigram that makes the same point: ‘This is no time for people who say: this, this, and only this. We say: this, and this, and that too.’

This claim makes a bold show of speaking for the moment, of addressing all those who care what time it is. But the ‘time’ of Yellow Tulips is quite a way from the time of Out of Danger, where the sentence first appeared, and of course the strong suggestion is that there just never will be a time for people who keep saying this and only this. All they are going to have is one amazing dialogue after another – if they bother to talk to anybody. But Fenton is probably not worrying. And if he is, his poems themselves are a more than adequate answer to his concern. Here is an inspired piece of nonsense that really is different from most poems we can think of, including those by the same author, and yet mysteriously still sounds as if James Fenton wrote it: ‘I saw Emily Dickinson in a vision and asked if it was merely by coincidence that so much of her poetry could be sung to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas”. She said: “In poetry there is no coincidence. I had feet once. I had knees. I would not have you think I had no knees.”’